What Are YouTube Influencers?
These are the stars of user-generated video content, who have captured the attention of younger audiences by the millions. Because they start off as ordinary people, speaking candidly on smartphones and webcams, their audiences trust them. There’s little or nothing in terms of production and editing, just people telling their own stories, on a popular platform, to anyone willing to listen.
The most popular YouTube influencers can now boast millions of subscribers – with whom they have a direct channel of communication. Inevitably, this has made them an attractive proposition for advertisers. Not only are they becoming more influential than traditional celebrities, they also have more proactive methods to deliver a message. But paradoxically, if a YouTuber is seen to be advertising a product, their strength of influence can be instantly undermined.
A more fundamental problem, however – as recently pointed out by Callum McCahon (Born Social’s Strategy Director) in a piece for Campaign, is that the CAP code states that “marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such.” So legally speaking, a YouTuber has to be open about advertising a product – being honest about it might help also them retain subscribers, but would the actual advertisement they deliver carry any more power than the norm? Probably not. This isn’t the girl next door making a trusted recommendation to the viewer – this is the girl next door handing them a flyer.
Currently, the lines are blurred and it can be difficult for an ordinary member of the public to discern whether or not a YouTuber has a commercial bias. But as such a new channel for advertisers, inevitably there have been problems in formalising best practise. We might reasonably expect that, eventually, things will be more clear-cut and more effectively enforced by ASA.
What is clear is that YouTube influencers are now established as part of the marketing landscape. This is evident in the growth of businesses springing up to serve this type of activity. There are agencies helping with how to find YouTube influencers, how to contact YouTube influencers, even how to create your own. But is the industry about to roast the goose that laid the golden egg? Possibly…
Is The Power Of YouTube Influencers Waning?
One of the main reasons YouTube influencer marketing stars have started to become more influential to younger generations than ‘traditional’ celebrities is that they are easier to identify with. They are seen as more authentic and relatable. But with an ever-growing list of YouTube influencers who can boast more followers than a typical Hollywood star, there’s a distinct risk of an Icarus situation. If a YouTuber becomes really, really famous it’s going to be much, much harder to pass themselves off as the folk-next-door – and that’s where their power really lies.
There are also inherent issues in terms of control – a brand can’t define every aspect of how a YouTuber will talk about their product, or indeed, what else they might include in their content and how that reflects on their associated brand image. Disney, for instance, chose to withdraw sponsorship from gaming YouTuber PewDiePie’s channel after allegations of anti-semitism.
There are other limitations innate to influencer marketing. As time goes on, stand-out and product differentiation will be harder to achieve – restricted by DIY production values and the influencers’ own stylistic conventions. There’s only so many times a YouTuber can open a product and wax lyrical before people lose interest – and an influencer can’t sensibly work with more than a small, selective range of brands at the same time.
The Future Of YouTube Influencer Marketing
Longer term, it look as though YouTube influencers may act more in a supportive PR role than as avenues for more overt advertisement. When so much depends on authenticity, trying to retrofit a popular YouTube star as a brand ambassador will always be a struggle. Instead, we might see brands reach out to existing customers and supporters who have the power to influence through YouTube on a smaller scale. They might not have the same reach or notoriety as the biggest influencers, but speaking to their niche audiences on more specialised subject matter, “micro influencers” can be far more credible advocates.
Instead of seeing advertisers throw large sums at having the most popular stars on YouTube advertise their product directly, we’re likely to see brands find who out there is already talking about their products in a positive light, checking their match for the brand image, then helping them boost their own subscriber counts. If brands support their supporters in this way, it could help firm up a very effective grassroots marketing strategy.
Image credit: Mario Calvo via Unsplash.